The other day when I was channel surfing I happened across a movie called The Man Who Saved Christmas, starring Jason Alexander as Alfred C. Gilbert, the inventor of the Erector set, one of the classic American toys of the 20th century. Gilbert became known as the “man who saved Christmas” during World War I when the U.S. government was considering a ban on the production of toys in order to support the war effort. Gilbert appeared before the Council of National Defense and successfully argued against the ban.
Gilbert was a Yale graduate and amateur magician who started with his partner John A. Petrie a business for producing magic tricks and apparatus. The company was named the Mysto Manufacturing Co. and based in New Haven, Conn. On Dec. 5, 1911, Petrie patented a disappearing cigarette trick (US1010794) and assigned the rights to Mysto. Gilbert’s interest, however, soon turned away from magic and to construction toys. On Jan. 20, 1913, he applied for a patent for toy construction blocks. The application described toy building blocks made of strips of sheet metal and the means of fastening them together with u-shaped couplings. The patent issued on July 8, 1913 (US1066809), the first of more than 150 patents Gilbert would receive for Erector set components and other toys. The A.C. Gilbert company (Gilbert changed the name in 1917) continued to produce Erector sets , train sets and other toys into the 1960s.
Whatever happened to Gilbert’s partner John Petrie? He parted ways with Gilbert in 1913 shortly after the introduction of the Erector set. He continued to invent and in 1917 patented an lighted hand mirror (US1216724) and a sand-wheel toy (US1247145). The trail grows murky after that. A John W. Petrie, also of New Haven, Conn. (possibly a son?), received several patents from the 1920s through 1940s for toys, magic devices and other items. Many of these were assigned to the Petrie-Lewis Manufacturing Co.